Field of Science

The tarnished golden rule

Subliminal priming is a cool psychological trick that can change the way you think or the things you do without you even being aware of it. So, for example, you do a word puzzle that includes religious words, and chances are you'll behave more honestly later.

Which brings us to the Golden Rule. This is one of those basic components of human morality that pops up in pretty much every culture - the British Humanist Society even produces a poster with 20 different versions from around the world. The version familiar to those of us with a Christian heritage is the well-known phrase "do to others what you would have them do to you".

So what happens, do you suppose, if you subliminally prime people with the Golden Rule? Perhaps you might expect them to be more open and tolerant of others who are different to them. Well maybe not, if new research from Oth Vilyathong at York University in Toronto is anything to go by.

Along with colleagues Nicole Lindner and Bryan Nosek, Vilyathong set out to see if priming the Golden Rule would make people less homophobic. You might expect so - after all, the basic message is one of tolerance and equality.

But there was an interesting twist to their study. In one version of the test, they used the Christian Golden Rule. In another, they used a Buddhist equivalent, "Never hatred is hatred appeased, but it is appeased by kindness".

They did this online, as part of Project Implicit. And that meant they could test both Christians and Buddhists from around the world.

Well, they found that Buddhists were less homophobic to begin with. Priming them with the Golden Rule - either the Christian or the Buddhist version - had no effect on their level of homophobia.

Same goes for Christians primed with the Christian golden rule. They were more homophobic than the Buddhists, and they didn't become less homophobic after the priming - regardless of whether their homophobia was measured explicitly (i.e. asking them directly) or implicitly (testing the speed at which they can make associations that involve images of same-sex versus different-sex couples).

But, when primed with the Buddhist Golden Rule, Christians became significantly more homophobic (at least when they were asked directly; there was no effect on implicit attitudes). They also reported being more convinced that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, rather than a fundamental aspect of character.

That's a really surprising result, and one that was the opposite of what they were expecting! The researchers think that it's probably down to that old religious chestnut - fear of outsiders.

There's a lot of evidence that criticism coming from someone outside the group doesn't mollify, but rather hardens attitudes. They suspect that the Christians in this sample took the Buddhist Golden Rule to be an implicit criticism of their intolerance, despite its upfront message of tolerance. And the Christians reacted by ratcheting up their intolerance.

Why didn't the Christian Golden Rule have this effect on Buddhists? Well, perhaps because they were less homophobic to start with. Perhaps it's because many of the Buddhists in their study live in countries where Buddhism is a minority religion - which might make them more sympathetic to other minorities, like homosexuals.

But the effect on Christians has important implications for the ideal of religious tolerance. Although we are frequently told that religions can co-exist peacefully, it's hard to see that happening when even messages of peace and tolerance from one religious group to another can actually serve to increase intolerance.

As Vilyathong and colleagues conclude...
The results suggest that when a tolerant message comes from a religious outgroup figure, it does not increase but instead may decrease tolerance toward another outgroup ... Although the Golden Rule has an important influence on religious believers, its message of compassion may backfire if it is seen as coming from an outgroup source. This suggests that it is not just the message, but also the qualities of the messenger, that will determine the effectiveness of appeals for tolerance.

ResearchBlogging.orgVilaythong T., O., Lindner, N., & Nosek, B. (2010). “Do Unto Others”: Effects of Priming the Golden Rule on Buddhists’ and Christians’ Attitudes Toward Gay People Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49 (3), 494-506 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2010.01524.x

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. Recently I have been posting more on Buddhism -- taking a break from posting on Christianity. The break has been refreshing. When I thought about it, it was partially because of the huge Insider-Outsider paradigm in Christianity that is very negative. It is ironic because Christianity touts itself as welcoming all gentiles, not just Jews. But it is deceptive, because, they are welcome (perhaps) but there is still a huge saved vs. damned -- us vs. them component.

    Also, blogging on Buddhism primed me for a better day whereas blogging on Christianity put a bit of a dark cloud over the sky.

    Buddhism is essentially tolerant in most of its forms, I think. Sure, people can make anything intolerant but when the original texts are loaded with tribalism, that natural human reflex for us-versus-them can be amplified easily.

    BTW, I may be a bit dense, but that "Buddhist Golden Rule" was a bit tough to understand -- had to read it a few times. Maybe that was part of the problem. :-)

    And isn't the Silver rule:
    "Don't do unto others as you Don't want them to do to you" --> a much better rule, in my book.

  2. The 'christian' quote is in fact from the Jewish sage Hillel -"What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man." — Hillel (ca. 50 B.C.E. - C.E. 10), who was asked by a flatterer to sum up all the teachings of the Torah in a sentence and gave this summary, concluding with the instruction, "now go and study", which sounds just like my dad when I was a kid!!

  3. That's a clunky translation, a better one is:

    "Hate is not ended through hate. Hate is only ended through kindness."

  4. @ SteveD
    What is it a "clunky" translation of? Do you know the source or did you paraphrase the English?


    Are you implying that Jesus was plagarizing? When it comes to such a commonsense thing as the Golden Rule, it would be easy to appear to be plagarizing.

  5. The Jesus quote is actually a paraphrase from <a href=">Matthew 7:12. Oh course, both he a later Jewish thinking was heavily influenced by the Greek philosophers - whose work contains a number of variations. Of course, this being the bible he may well have not said any such thing. It might be an interpolation by those pushing a hellenized version of his teachings (i.e. Paul & Co)

    Wikipedia is pretty good on this - including an interesting taxonomy of Golden Rules!"

    It did strike me that the Buddhist version was pretty incomprehensible. I think there was a typo in the published paper. It should read "Never by hatred is hatred appeased, but it is appeased by kindness" - which at least makes grammatical sense!

  6. @sabio
    This quote comes from the Dharmapada (and a couple sutras too).

    My version comes from this translation:

    I'd say it's a stretch to call this a "buddhist" equivalent of the golden rule.

  7. It's very possible that the effect is strictly due to the effect of those words, not the phrases as such or their sources. In particular, the words "do" "unto' and "others" might, in and of themselves, be quite innocuous, whereas the words "hatred" and "appeased" are quite arousing and irritating.

    If this is the case, then my guess is that atheists would react like the Christians, and so would anyone unfamiliar with the phrases. And, at the same time, if you just jumbled up the words you would get a similar effect. That is, exposure to these words makes people more defensive and hostile.

    If this is the case, the "effect" the researchers have found is that Buddhist training makes one not feel the effects of individual words in a common Buddhist phrase. My guess is this is likely. For example, my guess is the word "kill" is arousing and irritating to people, but the words "Kill Bill" presented to a fan of the movie will not have this effect.

  8. Agree with Drew and Steve's comment. Scrap this study.

  9. Yeah, these are all valid criticisms - although I think the study authors interpretation is still valid. It would relatively straightforward to test them. clearly more experiments needed!

  10. @ Tom
    I am confused
    Do you think that the author's...
    a) ... conclusions are "correct" or "on target"
    b) interpretation of the data is valid

    Because it seems the criticisms above poke holes in the validity, even if you like the conclusion.

    But that is probably not what you are saying -- just curious.

  11. Sabio, what I'm saying is that the theory that the authors propose is plausible and is consistent with the data from the study. The problem is that there are other theories (e.g. what Drew said) that are also plausible and consistent with the data.

    It could be that several factors contribute to the results seen, or it could be the one or other (or both) theories are wrong. We just can't tell with the data available.

  12. I love that the preponderance of these studies starkly emphasizes the basic inhumanity of xtianity's psychological underpinnings and that this blog presents them so nonchalantly. Skeptical persons tend to be able to guess these results w/ a fair accuracy and when virtually every study supports your common sense conclusions, there's no need to shout about it.

    The calmer you remain in an argument, especially when you're obviously, objectively right, the more hateful and disoriented the xian becomes; it's like the classic cartoon bit where someone makes a robot's head explode by confusing it conversationally. If there were only a way to lead a xian to an informative blog and make it think. :\

  13. Christopher's comments seem to conflict with his own name, not to mention themselves. Far from proving his intellectual superiority to Xians, he flaunts his own inhumanity by referring to a group of humans, a rather large group, using the third person pronoun. So let me sum up his argument: Hi, my name is derived from a religion I despise, primarily because it dehumanizes people, and therefore I think these people are non-human.

  14. Christopher's name gives him away. And asserting that a religion teaches inhumanity, while referring to a Christian as "it", is just as mixed up.


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